After five decades, Judy Chicago’s art still defines feminism in American culture

For the CDTMarch 7, 2014 

  • if you go

    What: “Surveying Judy Chicago: Five Decades” exhibit

    When: through May 11; spring break hours, noon-4 p.m. March 8-16, closed March 10

    Where: Palmer Museum of Art, University Park

    Info: 865-7672,

It’s all in a name for “Surveying Judy Chicago: Five Decades,” a Penn State exhibition marking the extraordinary career of the courageous, controversial and inspirational abstract feminist artist Judy Chicago. The groundbreaking artist is highly regarded in and connected to the feminist art movement, which began in the early 1970s.

The exhibition is part of the campuswide celebration of the artist’s 75th Chicago Art Education Collection, a collection of archival material on feminist art education now open to the public at the University Libraries. In addition to a number of exhibits, the university will host related activities, including a symposium and lectures.

This semester-long celebration of Chicago’s art education archives is one of a variety of exhibitions, events and publishing activities around the country. A slightly revised and expanded version of the American Contemporary Art Galleries show in 2010, the exhibit features numerous works drawn from private collections. Included in the Penn State displays are a selection of Chicago’s test plates and prints spanning her career as well as 39 process drawings for “The Dinner Party,” her iconic late-1970s installation depicting place settings for 39 women of historic significance.

Recent sculptures in bronze and cast glass also will be on display, confirming the artist’s continued determination to rediscover processes that best serve her emotionally compelling, narrative-driven, multimedia works.

The “Judy Chicago: Planting a Feminist Art Education Archive” symposium April 5-6 alone “promises to be eye-opening, empowering and inspiring to everyone who attends,” Chicago said.

More than a ‘Dinner Party’

Born as Judith Cohen in Chicago in 1939, she coined the term “feminist art” and founded the first feminist art program in the United States. In the 1960s, a gallery owner nicknamed her “Judy Chicago” because of her strong personality and thick Chicago accent. Her father’s involvement in the American Communist Party, liberal views toward women and support of workers’ rights strongly influenced Chicago’s way of thinking and belief system.

“Surveying Judy Chicago” is an outgrowth of a show of Chicago’s work that was put together in 2010 by ACA, her former New York gallery.

Since then, the exhibition has been expanded and has traveled to the Crocker Museum in Sacramento, Calif., and will go to Redline in Denver in October.

In addition to showcasing Chicago’s art production over 50 years, the birthday and the Palmer show also provide insights into “The Dinner Party,” her most well-known work.

According to Joyce Robinson, Palmer Museum curator and associate professor of art history at Penn State, “Surveying Judy Chicago” will provide visitors with a glimpse of the artist behind the works and an understanding of her motives for creating it.

“For those visitors whose knowledge of Chicago’s work is limited to ‘The Dinner Party,’ this survey of work from the late 1960s to the present will no doubt provide opportunities for discovery and moments of insight about just who this Judy Chicago — creative artist, author, educator, feminist and vocal advocate for human rights and equality — was, is, and continues to be,” she said.

“The Dinner Party,” Chicago’s masterpiece, is on permanent exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum in New York since 2007. The work depicts place settings for 39 mythical and historic, famous women, such as artists, goddesses, activists and martyrs.

Produced from 1974-79, “The Dinner Party” is a collaborative effort of female and male artisans, celebrating traditional female accomplishments such as textile arts — weaving, embroidery and sewing — and china painting, which have been framed as craft or domestic art.

Chicago’s other significant works include “The Birth Project” (1980-85), which used images of childbirth to celebrate a woman’s role as mother; “Powerplay” (1982-86), a series of drawings, weavings, paintings, cast paper and bronze reliefs in which Chicago replaced the male gaze with a feminist one, exploring the construction of masculinity and how power has affected men; and “The Holocaust Project: From Darkness into Light” (1985-93), a collaboration with her husband, photographer Donald Woodman.

This work marked a shift in interests for Chicago, moving from issues of female identity to an exploration of masculine power and powerlessness in the context of the Holocaust.

A return to art education

In 2011, due to the efforts of Karen Keifer Boyd, a professor of art education and women’s studies, Chicago’s extensive art education archive was acquired by Penn State, the perfect institution for this material because of its prominent stature in relation to art education.

“When my husband and I toured the Special Collections Library, where our archives are housed, we were thrilled and impressed by what the library was doing with the collection,” Boyd said.

The archive covers Chicago’s teaching projects beginning in the early 1970s, when she developed the world’s first feminist art program along with the Feminist Art Program at Cal-Arts in Southern California.

After taking a hiatus to focus on her studio work, Chicago went back to teaching in 1999. Over the course of the next six years, she and her husband did residencies at several universities.

“One of my goals during this period was to discover what had happened to university studio art education during my long absence,” she said.

Chicago’s observations and thoughts are collected in her new book, “Institutional Time: A Critique of Studio Art Education,” to be published by The Monacelli Press this month.

“The book outlines my profound dissatisfaction with the present state of studio art education and offers some ideas about how to radically transform it so that it will truly serve the needs of students, particularly women, as there is an inherent bias in the prevailing system,” she said.

The Judy Chicago Art Education Collection is considered one of the most important private collections of archival materials on the subject of feminist art education. Open to the public, it is housed in the University Archives in the Special Collections Library and includes videos, photographs and notes on Chicago’s teaching projects. The Judy Chicago Symposium, “Planting a Feminist Art Education Archive,” will celebrate Penn State’s relationship with the pioneering artist, educator and author.

Related events

•  “Out of Here” exhibit featuring work by students in special topics course on Judy Chicago:March 19-April 27, Art Alley, HUB-Robeson Center

•  “The Vagina Dialogues” by associate professor of theater Susan Russell: 12:10 p.m. March 21, Palmer Museum of Art

•  Challenge Yourself: Judy Chicago’s Studio Art Pedagogy” exhibit: March 24-June 13, Special Collections Library, 104 Paterno Library

•  “Judy Chicago: Planting a Feminist Art Education Archive” symposium: April 5-6, Penn State

•  “Institutional Time: A Critique of Studio Art Education” symposium keynote lecture by Judy Chicago: 5:30 p.m. April 5, Berg Auditorium, Life Sciences Building

•  Judy Chicago Views” selected works on paper exhibit: 5-7 p.m. April 6 and 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m. April 25, Palmer Museum of Art

•  “From Here to There: Four Decades as a Feminist Artist” exhibit by Nancy Youdelman, former student of Judy Chicago: through April 7, Borland Gallery

•  “Judy Chicago and the Promise of Utopia” by associate professor of English and women's studies Jennifer Wagner-Lawlor: 12:10 p.m. April 11, Palmer Museum of Art

•  “The Conversation Around the Table: Feminist Art and the Transnational” by assistant professor of women’s studies and African and African American studies Gabeba Baderoon: 12:10 p.m. April 18, Palmer Museum of Art

•  Conversation with curator and professor of art education and women’s studies Karen Keifer-Boyd: 12:10 p.m. April 25, Print Study Room, Palmer Museum of Art

•  Surveying Judy Chicago: Five Decades” exhibit: through May 11, Palmer Museum of Art

For more information or to register for the symposium, visit

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